The recent decision by the Taliban and one of its allies to withdraw from peace talks with Washington underlines the train wreck the U.S. is headed for in Afghanistan. Indeed, for an administration touted as sophisticated and intelligent, virtually every decision the White House has made, vis-a-vis Afghanistan, has been a disaster.
On Mar. 15 the Taliban ended preliminary talks with Washington, because, according to a spokesman for the insurgent organization, the Americans were being "shaky, erratic and vague." The smaller Hizb-i-Islami group followed two weeks later.
That both groups are refusing to talk should hardly come as a surprise. In spite of the Obama administration's talk about wanting a "political settlement" to the war, the White House's strategy makes that goal little more than a mirage.
The current U.S. negotiating position is that the Taliban must cut all ties with the terrorist group al-Qaeda, recognize the Afghan constitution, lay down their arms, and accede to a substantial U.S. military presence until at least 2024. The U.S. has 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, its allies another 40,000. The current plan calls for a withdrawal of most of those troops by the end of 2014.
What is hard to figure out is why the White House thinks any of its demands -- with the exception of the al-Qaeda proviso -- have even a remote possibility of being achieved? Or exactly what the Americans think they are going to be "negotiating" with Mullah Omar of the Taliban, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar of Hezb-i-Islami, or Sirajuddin Haqqani of the Haqqani Group?
The Obama administration's initial mistake was to surge some 33,000 troops into Afghanistan with the aim of beating up on the resistance and forcing it to negotiate from a position of weakness. That plan was always an illusion, particularly given the ability of the insurgents to fall back into Pakistan to regroup, rearm, and recruit. In any case, the idea that 140,000 foreign troops -- the 330,000 member Afghan National Army (ANA) is incapable of even defending itself -- could defeat a force of some 25,000 guerrilla fighters in a country as vast or geographically formidable as Afghanistan is laughable.
As a series of recent attacks demonstrate, the surge failed to secure Kandahar and Helmand Province, two of its major targets. While NATO claims that insurgent attacks have fallen as a result of the U.S. offensive, independent data collected by the United Nations shows the opposite.
In short, after a decade of war and the expenditure of over $450 billion, Afghanistan is a less secure place than it was after the 2001 invasion. All the surge accomplished was to more deeply entrench the Taliban and elevate the casualty rate on all sides.
The second U.S. error was to estrange Pakistan by wooing India in order to rope New Delhi into Washington's campaign to challenge China in Asia. First, Obama ditched his campaign pledge to address the volatile issue of Kashmir, the flashpoint for three wars between Indian and Pakistan. Second, the White House ignored India's violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and allowed it to buy uranium on the world market -- the so-called 1-2-3 Agreement -- while refusing that same waiver to Pakistan. Add the American drone war and last November's deadly attack on Pakistani border troops, and most Pakistanis are thoroughly alienated from the U.S. And yet a political solution to the Afghan war without Islamabad is simply impossible.
The U.S. demand to keep Special Forces troops in Afghanistan in order to continue its war on "terrorism" is not only a non-starter for the insurgents -- the Taliban are, after all, the target of thousands of deadly "night raids" carried out by these same Special Forces -- it is opposed by every country in the region save India. How the White House thinks it can bring the Taliban and its allies to the table while still trying to kill and capture them, or maintain a military presence in the face of almost total regional opposition, is hard to figure.
The more than 2,000 yearly night raids have eliminated many of the senior and mid-level Taliban leaders and atomized the organization. When it comes time to negotiate, NATO may find it has literally hundreds of leaders with whom it will have to cut a deal, not all of whom are on the same page.
That the insurgency would lay down its arms has a quality of magical thinking to it. Not only is the insurgency undefeated, but according to a leaked NATO report, captured Taliban think they are winning. The report -- based on 27,000 interrogations -- also found that "Afghan civilians frequently prefer Taliban governancy over GIROA [Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan], usually as a result of government corruption, ethnic bias and lack of connection with local religious and tribal leaders."
There is no popular support for the war, either in Afghanistan, the U.S., or among its allies. The most recent ABC Poll found that 69 percent of Americans want the war to end, and according to a poll in the Financial Times, 54 percent of the British want to withdraw immediately.
As for supporting the Afghan constitution, why would an undefeated insurgency that sees its enemies in disarray and looking at a 2014 U.S.-NATO withdrawal date, agree to a document they had no part in drafting?
None of this had to happen. Back in late 2007, Saudi Arabia carried a peace offer from the Taliban in which they agreed to cut ties to al-Qaeda -- a pledge they reiterated in 2008 -- and accept a time table for foreign troop withdrawals. In return, a national unity government would replace the Karzai regime until elections could be held, and the constitution would be re-written.